M.J. Fievre’s memoir A Sky the Color of Chaos (Beating Windward Press, 2015) chronicles Fievre’s childhood during the turbulent rise and fall of Haiti’s President-Priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide—a time of nightly shootings, home invasions, robberies, and the burning of former regime members in neighborhood streets. During the late 1980s and 90s, from when Fievre was eight-years-old to 18, Haiti’s government changed forms eight times; the Haitian people endured fraudulent elections, three military coups, a crippling embargo, and a United Nations occupation. A Sky the Color of Chaos will be featured at the Miami Book Fair International on Nov. 21.

In connection to the release of the book, Fievre had a conversation with writer Jan Becker. They addressed some of the themes explored in the book, including domestic violence, father-daughter relationship, and PTSD.

ag2Like writing this memoir wasn’t exercise enough in accelerating through self-consciousness and isolation, now I have to interview myself about it?

Apparently.

 

You’ve been quoted calling your new memoir, The End of Eve, “a comedy about domestic violence.” What’s up with that?

When I was working on the book I found it a bit tricky to explain to people what I was doing.

I’m writing about lung cancer!”

“A great project about watching my beautiful, crazy, abusive mom die!”

I must have sounded so depressing. People would go all doe-eyed. So I started saying I was writing a comedy about domestic violence. Well, that didn’t go over so well, either. Because, of course, domestic violence isn’t something to laugh about. But here’s the truth: I grew up in a violent household. My relationship with my mother always included some level of violence. But it also included a lot of humor. Some days, aking my mom laugh was the only way to get her to put down her weapons. It was the only way to get her to drop the drama. And laughter is a real way to relieve tension—that’s not just a quirk of MY family of origin, it is what is true.

chronology_of_water_121_200

Given a choice between grief and nothing, I choose grief.”
—William Faulkner

I wasn’t prepared for this memoir, this baptism by fire that Lidia Yuknavitch pours out onto the pages of The Chronology of Water (Hawthorne Books). I was aware of the controversy about the exposed breast on the cover, the grey band of paper wrapped around the book to appease those who can’t stand to see such obscenity. I was lured in by the glowing testimonials of authors I know and respect, people like Chuck Palahniuk, Monica Drake, and Chelsea Cain (who writes the introduction), her close-knit group of fellow authors, her workshop, support group, therapy and champions. But no, I wasn’t prepared for her voice—the power, the lyrical passages, and the raw, crippling events that destroyed her youth, but made her the woman she is today: fearless, funny, honest, and kind. By not being prepared, the opening lines hit me hard, and I in fact stopped for a moment, realizing that this was going to be bumpy ride, a dark story, but one that held nothing back. So I took a breath, and I went under:

Tell me the story of your pain and disappointment.

Every excruciating detail.

Tell it to me so slowly that it becomes something else in the telling.

Tell me in English, but feel free to throw in words from other languages from time to time so that you know I am paying attention when my eyes don’t cloud with misunderstanding.

Tell me how hurt you were when your mom said nothing.

Tell me how betrayed you felt when your best friend died, but kept on living and turned the rest of your friends against you.

Tell me everything. Now.

 

 

Tell me why you walk with that limp.

Tell me how you came about your hatred of people who cannot spell.

 

Describe hell from the inside out for me, again, slowly, slowly.

 

 

And if you won’t, tell me why you never tell me anything.

Tell me why I am a fool filled with guesses even though I know how much you get off on correcting me.

Tell me why I can’t fuck you.

Tell me why there are hardly any reasons left for anything.

Tell me why they say blood is blue even though it’s obviously red.

Tell me why people are like this.

Tell me why we are called people just like they are called people.

Tell me something that makes a difference.

And hey, listen, make sure it’s a really big difference.

Don’t fuck me on this.

 

 

Tell me there will be beaches in my future.

And ice cream.

Tell me everything I’ve ever forgotten.

Tell me my name.

Tell me my real name.

Say it slower.

Look at me harder.

Tell me I’m shit to God so it at least makes sense.

Tell me I’m going to be President.

Tell me I will be assassinated on my very first day in the White House so all that nervousness will have been for nothing.

Tell me a child could beat me up, but don’t beat me up.

Get me addicted to the idea of your approval.

Give it to me a few times. Then never again.

 

 

Tell me I want to fuck men but am too scared.

Dress me in a dress then beat me for wearing that dress.

Tell me I killed my brother in my sleep and that the police are just too dumb to piece what happened together.

Be the detective that does.

Tell me I am going to be 400 pounds by next week and that no-one will ever make eye contact with me again for the rest of my fat life.

Tell me karma is real and I will never get it and this is going to keep happening over and over and over and over again.

Tell me a lie more convincing than the truth.

 

 

Tell me my hair is made of licorice.

Tell me my eyes are really my balls.

Tell me I had a kid 20 years ago and that he is in the next room waiting to hug me and thank me for the life I gave him because he is getting married and is very, very happy.

Tell me I’ll never.

Tell me my teeth are not my teeth but the teeth of a third world child whose parents decided they wanted to eat that day.

Tell me my skin is titanium and that two years from now I will be given a brand-new heart. Then tell me you’re kidding and cut the sides of my mouth like the joker in the dark knight.

Hurt me until I feel nothing then continue to explore that nothing.

Break the rewind button on my old VCR.

 

 

Tell me I’m dead.

Tell me I’m dead and when I freak out, rub mint leaves on my temples and stroke my hair and then tell me you were just making a stupid joke, that I’m alive as summer in a douche commercial.

Tell me slowly then quickly, slowly then quickly, so I can laugh at the rhythm of your lips.

 

 

Make me a promise in the form of a statue.

Let birds shit on it.

Let frat boys pee on it.

Let it get hit by lightning and crack open and when that new, wet, disgusting mutation of me crawls out, fuck it, fuck him up too.

Let the biggest loser we know make fun of this.

Choke me just with your thumb and pinky to let the world see and know how weak I really am.

Giggle as I turn purple.

Remind me purple is for fags.

 

 

Tell me my father raping me was because I am sexy.

Tell me that that atrocity is now somehow good for my bowel movements.

Ah, make up a lot of scientific mumbo-jumbo, for which I am particularly prone.

Explain my sins in terms of time, weather, and place.

Tell me I matter to more people than I really do.

Tell me that I’m Japanese and that the reason I don’t have slanted eyes is because I was abducted at birth and given surgery so that I could enjoy the benefits of living here as an Aryan.

Call me Gook and Charlie and make gun shooting gestures at me.

Tell me that the Holocaust was a blast but Hitler should have finished the job.

Tell me about the evil already in me.

Tell me twice.

 

 

Tell me I’m a farmer living in Idaho and that my potatoes ain’t shit.

Tell me you know I’ve hired illegal workers and that the police are on their way.

Tell me every joint I ever smoked was dusted but that I was too stupid to realize it.

Tell me my ear is a sewer.

 

 

Tell me I look like John Travolta.

No, tell me I look like that kid from Mask.

Or the Elephant Man.

Tell me every woman that’s ever kissed me did so on a dare.

Tell me I’ll never get it up again.

If I do, laugh.

If I don’t, laugh.

Laugh at me like an old slave owner.

Niggerize me.

 

 

Tell me I should have been a woman.

Tell me I am.

Tell me I’m going to have my period for the rest of my life, uninterrupted.

Tell me I smell like iron.

Tell me if I have a baby she will be a slut too.

Tell me if I were in China I would have never been allowed to be born.

 

 

Tell me I don’t even deserve to cry.

Tell me the evil in me is a balloon and blow and blow and blow into my holes until I pop and the world becomes a really shitty place.

Tell me my mother has been paying my friends to be my friends for forty years.

Tell me you spit in my soup, came in my milk.

Yell at me like Adam must have Eve after you-know-what.

Like a bad big brother, make me hit myself over and over again.

Tell me Barry is dead.

And Lynn, and Erin.

Smear their blood on my stupid face and tell me it’s all my fault, that if I never loved them it wouldn’t have ever come to this.

 

 

Tell me in the voice I most recognize.

Tell me with intimacy, tenderness; like you think it’s turning me on.

Tell me on a crowded moving train so I can’t even scream.

Laugh as I swallow that scream.

Then another.

Then another.

Let your laughter be the last thing I hear before I pass out.

Ego is a funny thing.  It can buoy you in times of need but it can also raise you to dangerous heights from which to fall.  Deadly, even.

I’ve had an interesting life or at least I think I have.  I’ve learned over the past weeks to question most all of my self-perception and the colors of my memories.  I had thought myself a self-made – and therefore heavily scarred – survivor.  A man who started life as a violent borderline sociopath, emotionless and cruel, manipulative and opportunistic.  A man who then found love, turned his efforts to good and heroically carried himself and his bride to redemption.  Over the past month, I have found that I was, in fact, little more than a terrified, sensitive and brilliant child who became what he did to avoid the physical and psychological abuse that surrounded him and that preyed on such displays of weakness.  Who saved no one but was, in fact, saved by the woman he married.  And who, in fact, then victimized that woman, making her into a sacrificial lamb for his insecurities and fears.  My insecurities and fears.  My self-hatred and self-loathing.  My own Dorian Grey portrait.

My stepfather–who we’ll just call G.–sat across the dinner table from me. My mother sat to my left, silently pushing her food around the plate. I assumed this was because she’d discovered G.’s latest affair and was dealing with it in her usual silent denial. G. discussed what he’d be doing if it were his sophomore year in college instead of mine, Things I Would Have Done with Your Opportunities being a favorite topic of his. I’d only come to town to retrieve a few things I had left behind when I moved into my apartment, and I was eager to get back on the road as soon as possible.

It was early October, 1998. I was 19 years old.

G. was a Machiavellian bully of a parent, though one who preferred to intimidate psychologically rather than physically. My mother moved him in when I was six, and the ink was barely dry on her divorce decree before she married him. As the only boy in the house, I received the brunt of his attention. Everything was subject to scrutiny: my clothes, my taste in music, my prowess with girls, my lack of interest in team sports—all measured by some unspoken standard of masculinity I perpetually failed to live up to. That I earned a black belt in karate at sixteen made no substantial impression. I grew up in a state of quiet but pervasive fear, only finally escaping when I went off to college. I deliberately chose a university elsewhere in the state and came home infrequently.

Though not typically violent, G. hit me three times before I reached the age of 10. Once hard enough to make my gums bleed.

He largely ignored my little sister. This is the only reason she survived this period of our lives.

I finished my meal, but when I went to clear my plate my mother took it instead. “I’ll get this,” she said. “You just relax.”

Alarm bells went off in my head. Each family member was responsible for his/her dirty dishes, an inviolate rule for as long as I could remember.

She cleared not just my plate but the entire table, portioning the leftovers into Tupperware containers with astonishing economy of speed. G. sipped at his beer and made a show of appearing nonchalant. Some weird, nervous energy encoded his body language, and I found it vaguely threatening. Every lizard-brain instinct told me to flee, but before I could conjure an excuse my mother returned to her seat.

“There’s something we need to tell you,” G. said. “It’s about your father.”

My father? My father had become persona non grata years ago. During the divorce he battled viciously in court to avoid owing child support, a prolonged conflict which left my sister and I with smoking blast craters marring the landscape of our youth. When the courts decided against him, he abandoned his children in favor of his new wife.

“We’ve never been completely honest with you,” my stepfather continued. He stared me straight in the eyes, his poker face rapidly abandoning him. “But we think it’s time you know the truth. You’re not really his son. You’re mine.”

Mine.

The world fell away from me like a free-fall ride at an amusement park.

G. grinned as though he’d won a fucking prize.

My mother said nothing.

When I didn’t respond, G. kept talking: about his affair with my mother; about the anecdotal evidence that “proved” I was his biological son; how my various aunts and uncles had been aware for years. Something about how this would “free” me from the pain of the divorce.

I wasn’t really listening. I felt like a  freshly branded cow, a smoking MINE seared into my flesh. My heart beat against the ragged edges of broken feelings: betrayal, violation, confusion.

And so much anger. I wanted to glove my fists in the grinning bastard’s blood.

“I have to go,” I said, grabbing my leather jacket off the chair. No one tried to stop me.

Here’s where I lose the plot a bit. Everything was scattered, my head as big a jumble as a bag of Scrabble letters. I drove aimlessly, circling around the freeways, taking whatever off-ramp or side street presented itself. The city seemed both starkly real and yet grotesquely unreal, as though I’d stumbled into some Twilight Zone simulacrum of my life.

I stopped at payphones, attempting to get in touch with my friends, but it was Saturday and they were all out. I left them rambling, nonsensical messages.

Eventually, running low on gas and inertia, I found myself at the beach. The early autumn days were still running late, and the evening sun was just setting. I sat down on the sand to watch it, jacket pulled around me like a turtle shell. It was just another sunset, the exact same image I’d seen countless times, and yet so stunningly beautiful that for a moment I was able to forget about everything. One last explosion of color before the world finished turning to gray.

My crappy little 35MM Kodak was in my jacket pocket, and I snapped a few pictures.


Later I would pick myself up off the beach, drive back to school, and with the help of my friends, begin the process of reassembling myself, fearing for years afterward that crucial pieces were irretrievably lost.

I would not speak to any member of my family, save my sister, for months.

I would learn that G. had been threatening to leave my mother for his current mistress; she had hoped that allowing him to openly claim me as his offspring would prevent him from leaving her. But G. would move out before Christmas, and they would be divorced by springtime.

And before graduation, I would publicly–and cathartically–disown him.

But those events were in the future, still waiting to happen. For now I just sat there, alone on an empty shelf of beach, watching the sun slowly dive into the Pacific as bit by bit the earth carried me away from it.

BOULDER, CO-

I’ve studied martial arts most of my life, but I don’t enjoy watching fistfights. Sure, I sometimes watch MMA bouts, mostly as an exercise in making sense of techniques I learned in my Jujutsu days. But I am a salacious voyeur of one class of fights, one that weighs more in murderous intent than in mere blood. When it comes to fights over language, I’m part Don King, part corner, part cut man, part ringside rat, but never referee nor pugilist. This is the first of a few pieces about linguistic rage. First up, the real powder-keg: words of social distinction.